In Egypt, they lived as a Christian religious minority in a predominately Muslim country.
That, along with economic troubles in Egypt, is what led many Coptic Christians to immigrate over the last 40 years to the United States, where several hundred thousand now live, mostly in New Jersey, New York and California.
Copts are part of a religious tradition that broke with mainstream Christianity in 451 over a doctrinal dispute on the nature of Christ. Their current spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III, is based in Cairo and visits the United States frequently.
Tensions that have strained relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt also exist in the United States, but with far less potency than in Egypt, as Coptic Christians feel much more religious freedom here, several Copts said.
"I don't think that Coptic people in the U.S. suffer from anyone," said Mamdouh Abdelsayed, a Coptic Christian who lives in Kearny. "We are not a minority anymore as we are in Egypt. ... Dealing with Muslim people, we don't have problems. I'm doing my job, they're doing their job."
In Egypt, Coptic Christians feel their minority status every day, said Monir Dawoud, 65, who moved to the United States from Egypt in 1975.
"The media is all owned by the government, and the media is all Muslim, praising Islam and minimizing Christianity, making it very tough for Christians to live," said Dawoud, a surgeon in Hudson County and acting president of the American Coptic Association.
The killings of 21 Coptic Christians in riots five years ago in Kosheh, Egypt, remain a vivid memory for many.
In the United States, leaders of Egyptian Muslim and Coptic communities have tried to soothe relations, meeting several times at the Egyptian embassy in recent years.
"We can show we are the American-Egyptian family. We're all living here as foreigners," said Mohamed Younes, president of the American Muslim Union, a New Jersey group. "If we live in peace together, we give a good impression to people back in Egypt."
Yet some Copts and Muslims interviewed yesterday said distrust still exists.
"At the job, I talk to them, but (they) don't go inside my house," said Ashraf Paul, a Coptic Christian who drives a taxi in Jersey City. "I don't trust them."
Abdal Aziz, a Muslim taxi driver in Jersey City, offered the same sentiment.
"Most of the taxi owners in Journal Square are Christian. They don't help us. We don't need their help, and we can't trust them."
In Egypt, diplomacy between Coptic and government leaders is a delicate affair.
The main Coptic leader in the northeast United States, Bishop David, acknowledged in an interview last night that Copts want more religious freedoms in Egypt but stressed that the government is improving on that front. In recent years, for example, television has begun airing Christmas and Easter Masses.
By Jeff Diamant
New Jersy Star-Ledger
Staff writer Paul Nelson contributed to this story.